Does social media harm the neurodiversity community?
The power of the networked brain
The topic of social media and dopamine has preoccupied me for some time. As an ADHD patient with biological dopamine deficiency, I know on a personal level how vulnerable I am to the power of likes, clicks, and shares, and have worked to ensure I maintain healthy boundaries. However, the luxury of being able to do without social media altogether is a modern day privilege because for most of us it is either part of work life or the best way to keep up with friends and family far away. For the disabled community, it is also a lifeline that allows access to social groups and activities that would otherwise be forbidden.
Last week, the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the type of content that is most likely to grab our attention. Regarding a PNAS study, I found that we are more likely to share negative posts, especially when it comes to our perceived opponent or an outside group that we disagree with. The study used politics as a framework, but emphasized the link between our compulsive use of social media and a shift towards binary and polarized thinking that is relevant in many areas, including the neurodiversity community.
Yes, we all get mad at the things that make us passionate (and rightly so), but do we get drawn into some kind of addictive anger where chastisement and assumption make us feel so much better than atonement and nuance? For those of us in the neurodivergent community who already tend to speak directly, fight for justice, and stand up for our position, are we just being dragged too far into a divisive path because of the dopamine reward?
Dopamine and behavior
Dopamine is a chemical that sends messages from our body to our brain to let us know when we are “satisfied”. It plays an important role in our mood and helps keep us motivated. When we come across an activity that increases our dopamine levels, we are motivated to do it again because we foresee the result and want it to be. Because of this process, dopamine is habit-forming.
We have known for decades from the work of behavioral psychologist BF Skinner that dopamine is more addictive when triggered on a variable schedule than when we receive it regularly. Before the internet, slot machines were designed with this in mind, as were most social media platforms. We know this because several members of the tech community have openly admitted it. We keep checking in and coming back because we don’t know exactly when we will have the next reaction or comment to make us feel good.
While I believe that at this point in time, most people are to some extent aware that they are addicted to apps and social media, how many are aware that we are still being encouraged to be angry with content? As the article says, “We often worry that social media is becoming an“ echo chamber ”where people only hear from others they agree with. The study suggests that the problem is not just that people only hear from their own group, but that the posts they are most likely to see can actively encourage hostility towards the unfamiliar group. “
This has now resulted in a vicious circle. Angry and negative content is shared more often, so companies are motivated to focus their and your attention in that direction. The article goes on to explain, “There are benefits to going viral: politicians or media companies can gain followers, while social media companies rely on audience engagement to generate revenue. This kind of polarizing content is actually stimulated by the structure of the social media platforms. “
With this knowledge we can now see that social media actively trains our behavior. We feel rewarded by dopamine for sharing outrage-based content and consenting to others, and this content increasingly feeds us with negative views.
The neurominational community in general is aware that such techniques put us at increased risk. Some of us find nuances and tones difficult to perceive; some of us are naturally dopamine deficient. Some of us have experienced our differences as oppression and are looking for the healing power to finally find an “in-group” to which we can belong. However, autistic people in particular have been very open about techniques aimed at modifying behavior through rewards like Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), and the internet is similar to ABA, which acts socially without our best in our hearts . We don’t want to be manipulated into polarization. So how do we find balance and self-confidence without having to completely turn our back on social media?
Can we correct ourselves?
We will have to check ourselves and each other. However, how much of our anger do we project online without knowing all the facts? How often do we assume that our first perception of something is correct and then refuse to adjust our thinking after further facts are uncovered? When was the last time you spoke in good faith to someone who was respectful on both sides? This is not the same as blanket forgiveness for those who wrong us, and we can still hold our limits when we feel threatened, but we can withdraw rather than escalate. Nor is this an argument in favor of tone policing, but a reminder that a lack of context, detail, and humanity can often lead us to take an unnecessarily combative path.
In the book Conflict Is Not Abuse, author and creative Sarah Schulman explains that one function of good relationships is to challenge one another when we do something wrong. We should ask, “What do you mean, what did you mean by that?” and “What did you actually see or hear here, is it possible that you misinterpreted the situation?” My good friends and colleagues can send me a DM to indicate when I have said something that could be interpreted negatively , or challenge me to escalate. Healthy relationships don’t accept everything you say in a curse word as the gospel, they let in a little steam and then help us return to our values. The book’s slogan is “Over-claiming Damage, Community Responsibility, and Duty to Repair”. Ms. Schulman explains that the same tools required to repair on a personal level will be effective on a societal level. We need to model the behaviors we ask of others, determine when we are actually the aggressor, and learn to step back with elegance. We have to reject the rabbit hole into which our virtual existence leads us and support each other to return to a place of mutual positive appreciation, or like Dr. Caitlin Walker says: “From curiosity to contempt”.
Is that relevant at work?
In short, yes. Social media affects all of us at work. At my company, my social media team recently took a break from interactions and only posted scheduled activities to take a break, as the pil-ons had triggered them on the personal level of their own neurodivergence. Our colleagues communicate via social media. They can take part in activities online that will affect their reputation and career. You can take a stand and be criticized for it in the office. Social media permeates our daily life and all of our work spaces, and the resulting communication style is more likely to flow back into professional team relationships. Those of us who are more easily seduced by social media need support to find balance, those who rely on the internet to find our “in the group” are more easily hurt when things go wrong. Companies that do not think creatively about how they can support virtual communication via apps and platforms fall for themselves. Since we can predict this, we can plan it out and the first step is to have some frank conversations. Ask if someone would like a safe place to debrief online interactions. Offer your own learning experiences as a role model for safety. Remember that some colleagues are more vulnerable online than others.
I just put it out there that I am open to challenges, curious questions about my intentions, and learn more after posting something that offended you. The big problems of our time, social justice, economic inequality, climate crisis, discrimination, oppression, psychological stress, violence and learning to deal with complex systems – all of this depends on our ability to overcome the dopamine addiction of soapbox talk.
In business, we often fail to include the critical thinking brain, miss the broader contextual problems, and focus on cause and effect mechanics rather than systems. Dopamine is not a bad thing. We can accomplish it by having enough food, social support, and authentic connections to accomplish valuable goals. When our communities and workspaces are inclusive and healthy, our colleagues may need to look less online for solace.